Dried sugar cane. Train tracks at Grenada's rum factory. Photo by Kristin Carlson.
Grenada’s rum distillery is the real thing: small, rusty, located in the middle of a remote sugar cane field on a tropical island requiring an enduring trek to reach, and operated by long-antiquated equipment. Likewise, the tour of the factory isn’t a Disney stage set version like you find at Bacardi after you ride your little golf cart bus to its air-conditioned door; the Grenada tour is the real deal, too. If you pay close attention, you might even figure out how to make rum yourself on a smaller scale. It is a rustic, sweltering, and wonderful experience, and remains one of my favorite memories of summer vacation in the Caribbean.
My husband and I found the suggestion to visit River Antoine Distillery in a guidebook, and wholeheartedly set on our way. The friends we were visiting on the island were attending St. George’s Medical School, and hadn’t yet been to see the rum facilities. So, our local connections meandered off to view cadavers while we made our way up the mountain.
Hot sweet sugar plantation. A summer day in Grenada. Photo by Kristin Carlson.
The journey itself is important in recreating the day, and I feel obligated to share it with you here. Without a car of our own, the trip consisted of several hours of various reggae bus rides with transfers at sun warmed outdoor fish markets and elementary schools letting out for the day. The bright red van played great reggae music as promised (I assume to alert people of its arrival). It also was a stick shift, drove at approximately 80 miles per hour on varying sides of a twisting and steep mountain road, and did not offer seatbelts. In total, a conservative estimate says there were at least 35 people riding on the seats and plywood extenders at any given time. By the time we reached the rum factory, it was late afternoon and we were slicked with sweat. We were also sandwiched onto a small seat of plywood spanning the area between the end of the van seat and van wall (approximately 6-8 inches in length) along with the behinds of a full grown adult woman and several small school children.
Eventually, we were dropped off alone in what seemed to be the middle of the jungle. After walking up a length of dirt road to a rusty tin shed, we found a group of women sitting in the partial shade and fanning themselves in the heat. One agreed to give us a tour for a couple of dollars, which was great because it didn’t seem like as regular a request as the guidebook had indicated. We learned that the rum distillery has been in operation since 1785, and is still run by a wooden water wheel (said to be the oldest wheel running in the Western hemisphere) today. We walked through the very sugar cane plantation where the cane was being grown and harvested to see the water wheel in action, then up a mountain of dried cane being fed into the furnace, and past a wooden train cart bringing cane for fermentation to the top of the pile.
Open for fermentation. Where sugar becomes rum. Photo by Kristin Carlson.
Once inside the building---a brick and metal open-air affair---we had a look at the fermentation vats. The tanks were huge, uncovered metal bowls of liquid in various stages of thick, brown effervescence. Any bugs which found their way into the goo simply floated to the top and were skimmed off with a wire net. Really, there was no worry about germs when the resulting rum is so strong and pure, with more than enough alcohol content to burn off any bacteria. Personally, I think something good about the Caribbean air and its spices got into the rum itself as it was allowed to age this way, out in the open. It was rather incredible to see.
In the room at the end of the tour, the rum itself had completely transformed itself from the muddy sludge stage to the bottling stage and seemed clearer than water. The finished rum was bubbling up into a large clear glass bottle on the floor, connected to a series of pipes and outfitted with various gauges and gadgets to determine what was a keeper batch. In this hallowed last room, I received a tiny plastic shot glass of crystal clear rum, dispensed unceremoniously from a large plastic Gatorade jug with a spigot. It seemed a fairly stingy amount for tasting until I got my face close enough to tilt the cup towards my mouth. The fumes made my eyes water and seemed to crisp my eyebrows. The rum was quite, quite strong and a little went a long way. Our guide was very knowledgeable, and explained how the rum is fermented twice, tested for strength at the end of each fermentation, and brewed again if it does not test strong enough. The end result is over 70 proof---too strong to be allowed into the US. If you wish to bring a bottle home, you can obtain a diluted version in the airport gift shop, or you can buy a t-shirt.
Tasting time. The moment of truth. Photo by Kristin Carlson.
Later in the week, I indulged in the same real local Grenada rum in its more easily enjoyable form: mixed with cranberry and pineapple juice or Coke. I noticed on a snorkel trip as well as in the bar that drinks were incredibly strong. The bartenders told me that this is because rum is local (cheaper), while juice and Coke are imported (more expensive).